I will sing the song of the sky

I finished sewing binding on the salmon quilt yesterday and have packaged it up to put in the mail for Forrest and Manon in Ottawa. I am so pleased with how it turned out, though the sewing is clumsy and the squares slightly lopsided. Perfection has never been my goal. I want them to think of this place when they shake it out, lay it on their bed; I hope they will remember the boat trip down Sakinaw Lake to the little bay at the end, where the salmon were congregating before swimming through the fishways and finding their natal streams.


I think of this ancient Tsimshian song, sung before the distribution of gifts at a potlatch:

I will sing the song of the sky.

This is the song of the tired —

the salmon panting as they swim up the swift current.

I walk around where the water runs into whirlpools.

They talk quickly, as if they are in a hurry.

The sky is turning over. They call me.

I wanted nothing so much

We’ve had to dismantle our vegetable garden after some drain field problems over Christmas necessitated repairs to the field. Digging up the raspberry canes, perennial herbs and greens, the roses kept safe from deer behind the garden fence, and trying to remember where the clumps of crocus and tulips were to ease them out of their winter sleep, I kept remembering what it was like to make the garden in the first place. I was young (but felt old!), had two, then three small children, and we were finishing our house, bit by bit. In early summer, after the children were in bed, I’d go out and dig furrows with a pick. The soil was rubble, really — I believe it was called “porous fill”, brought in by the guys doing the drain field to cover the lines and level the surface.  I gathered seaweed and begged manure from friends with chickens or horses. Every bloom or cabbage was like a miracle.

The garden evolved, not in a tidy or planned way, but lovingly, carelessly. I loved working out there, surrounded by bees in the oregano, snakes sunning themselves on warm soil, finding tiny frogs in the peas, hungry for aphids. Taking it apart, we kept saying, “Let’s treat this as an opportunity to organize things, make better use of the space.” And we do, we will. The repairs are finished and now we are in the process of figuring out where to place beds, where to settle the raspberry canes back into the rich soil. “Rich”, because I’ve dug hundreds of pounds of seaweed in over the years, buckets of compost, and most recently, half a dump-truck load of mushroom manure (the other half-load waiting for spring under a tarp, to be used for potted tomato plants, etc.).

Walking around in the mud this morning, in the rain, I kept remembering those early efforts to make beauty. I need to remember that it all happened in its own time because the place is a mess right now! The first thing we did was put the compost box in place and pace out paths, replant the small Merton Beauty apple tree at the far end. In a few minutes I’ll go out to help John pound in fence posts so we can restring the deer fence. But here’s a small offering for Sunday morning, a poem I wrote, probably the last poem I ever wrote, maybe 25 years ago, after my dear friend, the late Floyd St. Clair, gave me the gift of a an opera (La Rondine). I’d listen to Magda sing of love and her dreams and see the swallows courting above our garden and it was all part of an complex emotional landscape I found myself immersed in.

last of the pink crabapple

La Rondine

Standing on the garden path, forgetting
what I’ve come for, scissors in hand
and a small blue bowl,
I watch the swallows reel and turn.

On two fenceposts of the garden,
                                  little houses
wait for the nests of dry grass and feathers,
the round opening of home.
In the years before the swallows,
I came out
in the dark, paused in my thin white nightdress
among the new vines of peas, listening
with one ear for the baby,
one ear for owls. Going back
to the house where one lamp burned,
softened by moths, I wanted nothing
so much as flowers and children,
of vegetables, my husband turning to me
as I entered our bed, cool from the garden.

Now I feel old among the broadbeans
and the rows of potatoes.
The swallows whirl and call in flight
as ardently as Magda
sang the high sweet notes
                          of youth and love
and I clip rosemary, fill my small blue bowl
with remembrance.
So much still undone, children half-grown.
The swallows fall from the sky
                               so sudden
it takes my breath
sometimes their wing-tips just touching,
like fingers.

The risk of nostalgia

This afternoon I found myself reading a small journal I kept during a trip to Europe in 2010. At an exhibition in Vienna – and I didn’t record the museum but possibly it was the Museum of Modern Art (or Mumok) where I recall a fascinating exhibit on the Moderns – I wrote down this observation by Sidney Tillim, from an essay, “Notes on Narrative and History Painting”, published in Artforum (May, 1977), posted on the wall of one gallery:

“The risk of nostalgia is a morbid identification with the past. But its power is precisely as a criticism of the present. Representation, as I conceive it, is an admission of loss…and a criticism of an unfulfilling reality which takes the form of an attempt to re-establish a live equivalent of the lost ideal.”

This strikes me as particularly resonant as I am currently reading Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. I first encountered PLF’s work in the late 1970s, just after A Time of Gifts (1977) was published. I remember how taken I was with both the journey described in its pages (and that of its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, which came out in 1986) – imagine, a young man, 18 years of age, deciding to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (we would say Istanbul but that romantic boy insisted on its earlier name)! – and the rich prose taking the reader so generously to a time and a series of places about to be changed utterly by the Second World War. A Time of Gifts  and Between the Woods and the Water trace his route through Holland, beginning in December, 1933, entering Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania, and ending at the Bulgarian border. He reached Constantinople a little more than a year later, in December, 1934. I re-read his books every few years and have had the pleasure of introducing several friends and family members to them. Like many fans of PLF, I am eagerly waiting for the third book, left in draft form after its author’s death in June, 2011.

How did he do it, I’ve always wondered. How did he write so vividly of a walk across Europe, years after he’d done it, with many more extraordinary adventures —  his war-time service for instance, including his time in occupied Crete, working with the Cretan resistance. (If you’ve seen the film, Ill Met by Moonlight, you’ll know something about this.) I think it’s fair to say that A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water contain elements of embellishment. The gorgeous passages describing his grand ride across the Great Hungarian Plain are an example of this. The wonder of those days, walking and riding across a vast sunlit steppe among sheep and goats and long-horned cattle, hosted by one family of faded nobility after another, all of them kind and cultured. There were games of bicycle polo in courtyards followed by long dinners made splendid with poetry and music. It seems that he walked more than rode, though the story of being lent a horse at one end and honouring the arrangement to drop the horse off at the other is, well, exaggerated. In a letter to Artemis Cooper, he says, “I did ride a fair amount, so I decided to put myself on horseback for a bit. I felt the reader might be getting bored of me just plodding along…You won’t let on, will you?” Does it make any difference, knowing this? To me, not a bit. Memory has a way of storing and polishing the important events of our lives until they have the clarity of fine jewels. They are no less valuable for having begun as glass. And PLF is a writer above all, his imagination shaping his memories into narratives we are lucky to have.

In my Vienna journal from 2010, I wrote down an observation made by Alex Colville, accompanying (I think) “The River Spree, 1971”:

“I do not paint from direct observation but from memories. I paint exact, and only change the reality according to the requirements of the composition. To be a good realist, I must invent everything.”

A few years ago, everyone was reading The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, described by their publisher as follows:

“How negotiable is a fact in nonfiction? In 2003, an essay by John D’Agata was rejected by the magazine that commissioned it due to factual inaccuracies. That essay—which eventually became the foundation of D’Agata’s critically acclaimed About a Mountain—was accepted by another magazine, The Believer, but not before they handed it to their own fact-checker, Jim Fingal. What resulted from that assignment was seven years of arguments, negotiations, and revisions as D’Agata and Fingal struggled to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction.”

Oh, how times have changed. For the better?  I wonder. I’m so grateful to have PLF’s glorious account of his walk across Europe, a copy of Horace’s Odes in his rucksack, and a greatcoat to keep him warm those nights when he hadn’t been taken in by a baron or a baker or a Rumanian princess, just before the maps he used were redrawn forever.

We had one of the best meals ever at this restaurant in Vienna!
We had one of the best meals ever at this restaurant in Vienna!

Talking to my son…

…on the phone just now, I looked up — I am at my desk — to see this elk standing on the new cleared area, looking at me.


The photograph is blurry because it’s through glass but you can see the beautiful winter pelage — the yellow rump in particular. And what you can’t see (but they show up on the much blurrier zoomed image) are tiny antler buds. So this is a young bull, in his second year.

And when I went to the back door by the little hot-tub deck, I saw the rest of the herd. They immediately raced into the woods, crashing like, well, the 180-500 kg. animals they are.


The Next Big Thing

My friend Barbara Lambert has “tagged” me in “The Next Best Thing”, a lively literary relay making the rounds of Canadian writers. The idea is that we answer a series of set questions about our current work-in-progress and then tag (ideally) five other writers, providing links to their websites or blogs. Barbara’s own answers can be found here (and if this also leads you to her recent novel, The Whirling Girl, you won’t be disappointed!): http://barbaralambert.com/writer/author/books/177-Blog+Tour+That+Ran+Itself

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

— What is your working title of your book?

I am half-way through a novella – working title is Patrin (a Romani word for “leaf” or to indicate a trail marked by sticks, leaves, etc.). It will be a companion-piece to a recently-completed novella, Winter Wren.

— Where did the idea come from for the book?

Patrin grew out of research I am doing for an extended non-fiction work based on the life of my grandmother, born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1881. She was poor and it turns out poor people don’t leave a huge material record. I said to someone, “I might just have to imagine her early life as a work of fiction.” About a week later, I began to write a novella based on the life of a woman who turns out NOT to be my grandmother but who has allowed me to imagine another world, a woman who is as far away from my own life as my grandmother was, who came to Canada under similar circumstances but with a very different background. I am also interested in how material objects  can hold family history, often undecoded, so when I saw Patrin opening a box containing a tattered quilt with a curious pattern of loden leaves, connected by trails of grey wool, I knew it was a map directing me to the heart of the story.

— What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction.

— Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Someone dark and willowy for Patrin, the 20-something woman at the heart of the novella-in-progress. The young Juliette Binoche from The Unbearable Lightness of Being? A young Adrien Brody for Petr, her guide in Prague and further afield. And if anyone has a suggestion for Patrin’s grandmother, a woman in her late eighties, heavy-set, rugged, and with dark-ish skin (she is a Kalderash woman from eastern Moravia), do let me know so I can tell the studios when they come calling.

— What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Victoria, British Columbia and the forests of the Beskydy Mountains in the Czech Republic form the backdrop for a brief lyrical narrative about a young woman in search of her family’s mysterious past.

— Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I have never been able to interest agents in my writing, alas. But I’ve been lucky enough to have placed my books with lively small(ish) presses over the years and have nothing but praise for the presence of these presses on the literary landscape. They keep the cultural conversation diverse and authentic.

— How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I haven’t yet finished Patrin. Winter Wren took me a year. I anticipate that Patrin will take about the same time.

— What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’m not finished yet and don’t want to suggest relationships that might not survive the writing. But I admire the novels of John Berger for their fiercely idiosyncratic structure, the consummate story-telling of Louise Erdrich, the intelligent trajectory of anything by John Banville…

– Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I partly answered this in the second question but of course who ever knows where, exactly, the inspiration for a book truly comes from? As well as family history, I’ve also been immersing myself in Czech cultural history and look daily at the photographs of Josef Sudek who has given me entrance to the Beskydy Mountains where my grandmother lived as a child. And I’ve been listening to Roma music, both the styles of Central Europe as well as Macedonia.

— What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Joe Fassler wrote a wonderful piece on the novella, published last April in The Atlantic. (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/04/the-return-of-the-novella-the-original-longread/256290/) He mentions Dennis Loy Johnson, co-founder of Melville House Publishing and its “Art of the Novella” series: “He was daunted by the genre’s limited viability—and yet the idealistic prospect of novella-writing pleased him. ‘It always struck me very romantically,’ he said. ‘A pure writerly exercise that was only for the love of writing. We had no expectations our novellas would ever circulate.”

Maybe this is part of the pleasure of the novella. Years ago I wrote Inishbream, a brief narrative set on an island off the west coast of Ireland. It was published by the Barbarian Press in a beautiful edition, illustrated by the American wood-engraver John DePol; and then given a second life a few years later by Goose Lane Editions. Yet when I wrote it, I had no expectation that anyone would ever want to publish it at all. The thing about getting older is that you come to terms with what’s possible and what’s unlikely. I’m probably never going to write a block-buster, a best-seller which will be sold to Hollywood (I hate to disappoint Juliette Binoche and Adrien Brody), but every morning I can come into my study, turn on my desk-light, and write for the sake of the language and the story. What a privilege.

I’ve tagged five writers and so far can tell you that Anik See, Catherine Owen, and Don Gayton will carry the baton forward in the near future. I can’t wait to see what they write!




Winter’s Journey

Last night I dreamed of a song cycle, Schubert’s Winterreisse, with its haunting story of a lover who leaves the home of his beloved — she loves someone else — to wander a winter landscape, and when I woke, I had an immediate desire to hear this beautiful cycle. Luckily I have a recording of it, sung by the English tenor Ian Bostridge, accompanied (though in truth the piano supports and provides so much to the cycle that it’s hardly an accompanying instrument) by Leif Ove Andsnes; I’m listening to the two make winter magic in my quiet house. (It’s cold out and I have to take my garden apart for some repairs to the drain field and all I want to do is stay by the fire and think of spring.)

The cycle takes as its text a series of poems by Wilhelm Müller. This is the opening…

My heart is as good as frozen;

within it her image gazes coldly.

If ever my heart thaws again,

her image too will met away.

And then we are treated to 24 songs so beautiful and textured — the piano summons weather, ravens, dogs, horns, the hurdy-gurdy, the creaking of ice and the chilly sound of water beneath it; and what Bostridge does to bring the texts to a full emotional rendering is astonishing — that the listener is advised to keep both tissues and a warm drink at hand.

Sometimes dreams are nonsense, sometimes they are prophetic. How did my unconscious know that I needed this music today, the journey of the lover across a frozen landscape?

I reckon this a morning

to match my frame of mind!

My heart sees in the sky

its own painted portrait…

new snow on Hallowell

enroute to Pearl Harbor

This is the telegram my mother sent to my father 58 years ago to announce my birth.


I was born in Victoria and my father was away at sea. At the top of the telegram, he’s printed: Rec’d in HMCS Stettler Enroute to Pearl Harbor. I think of my mother holding me and dictating the text she would send to her husband, father of her two sons. DARLING THERESA DIANE ARRIVED EVENING WEIGHING SIX POUNDS ALL WELL WE ALL LOVE YOU AND MISS YOU…

The telegram came to me a few years before my parents died. They tucked it into a birthday package. Like most family papers, it hadn’t been stored carefully away — look, it’s torn, discoloured, and folded into 16ths. (My father probably kept it in his wallet until he arrived home to see his new tiny daughter. Six pounds!) And true to family tradition, I haven’t done anything special with it but keep it in my dictionary. I’d like to honour it, honour the memory of the mother who sent it to her husband, far away, though loved and missed (and in those years a telegram cost precious dollars, each word measured and considered). Maybe this is the year I’ll frame it or even simply enclose it in a mylar envelope to protect what’s left of it.

So much of our history is rag-tag. A telegram, the teddy bear my father bought in Hawaii as a baby gift and who still sits in my study, much worse for wear (or well-loved), in  a small wicker rocking chair. Photographs unsorted in boxes, some of the people beyond identifying. Or a phrase, Enroute to Pearl Harbor, with the mystery of that journey, the mystery of the man who received the telegram, held it in his hands, thought of the woman he loved and his two sons, and now a daughter. Probably he never felt so far from home.